Tennessee had two advantages against Kentucky that were most likely to lead to a victory against the Wildcats. As it turned out, the Vols beat Kentucky by relying on their strong running game and just enough pass pressure. Everything went according to plan, sort of.
Tennessee led the entire game in a 33-27 win against the Wildcats on Saturday night as the Vols’ rushing offense, which is one of the tops in the nation, racked up 254 yards on 47 carries, including 156 yards on 18 carries in the first half, to lead the Vols to an early 10-0 lead. A 52-yard, touchdown run by Jaylen Wright was the statement and put the Vols up 7-0 early and gave Tennessee a lead it would never relinquish.
The Vols’ running game continued in the second half with 98 yards on 29 carries in the final two quarters. That ground attack led to some downfield passing that had alluded Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton earlier in this season, particularly a 39-yard touchdown pass to Chas Nimrod in which the redshirt freshman was wide open in the end zone. While the Vols were moving the ball the old fashioned way, Tennessee’s vaunted pass rush wasn’t nearly as effective, but good enough.
As for that vaunted front seven that has proven to be one of the best defenses in the nation in making plays made behind the line of scrimmage, the Vols recorded only one sack by Norman Lott. No, the Vols didn’t dominate the line of scrimmage nor live in Kentucky’s backfield, but they did enough to keep a resurgent quarterback, Kentucky’s Devin Leary, unsettled just enough.
Perhaps more intent on stopping Kentucky star running back Ray Davis, the Vols allowed Leary to have a fantastic day. The senior was mobile and accurate, rushing for 21 yards on five carries, avoiding sacks and completing 28 of 39 passes for 373 yards and two touchdowns.
Tennessee’s rushing attack – and entire offense – relied more on nifty running in the second half by running back Dylan Sampson than it did dominating the line of scrimmage. His timely 11-yard run in the fourth quarter that probably should have been a tackle for a loss kept the Vols moving. Sampson was everywhere for the Vols, rushing for 76 yards on 17 carries and catching four passes for 39 yards. The totals weren’t overwhelming, but the timing was obvious.
Kentucky certainly deserves credit for not taking the Vols’ fast start as a deathblow. Tennessee took a quick 10-0 lead and it felt like and old-school Wildcat beatdown could be in order. However, thanks to Leary and just enough defense, the Wildcats kept the game close and never seemed defeated despite coming off of two consecutive losses. Perhaps the bye week helped the Cats’ psyche. As for Tennessee, they were coming off of an emotional loss to Alabama in a physical game. No matter, the Vols were ready to play.
The Vols will begin their last third of the season with by hosting a a woeful UCONN team, which is 1-7, and shouldn’t present any challenge for the Vols in Neyland Stadium on Saturday. After that, things get real. After the Huskies, the Vols have to travel to play Missouri, which is 7-1 and host No. 1 Georgia on Nov. 18 before closing the season out with Vanderbilt.
“I love the effort and the energy that we played with”, Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said.
He should be.